Postcard from Mexico City: A mountainous amount of history reflected in Chapultepec Palace

In 1725, the commanding Chapultepec hilltop rising steeply 200 feet above Mexico City was the site chosen by Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez (1746-1786) for his manor house. During the Mexican War of Independence, the site was abandoned. The Mexican government then remodeled it for use as a military academy.

Two hundred cadets, some as young as 13, were among the 1,000 Mexican soldiers guarding the citadel when General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) set his eyes on the target as a strategic asset facilitating the capture Mexico City during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848.) Following intensive shelling, American troops were able to scale the fortress and engage in bloody hand-to-hand combat with the defenders.

The costly victory for participating Marines is engrained deeply in the corps’ tradition, “From the halls of Montezuma….” For Mexicans, the battle heroes remembered are six brave cadets who refused to surrender. Fighting until the bitter end, one wrapped himself in the Mexican flag before leaping off the precipice so the flag would not be captured. Virtually every city in Mexico has an avenida memorializing the valor of the cadets, los ninos heroes.

Captured flags arouse countries, and the aging silk banner of the New Orleans Greys seized by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is displayed in Chapultepec Castle today despite continual efforts to negotiate its return to San Antonio. History always is subject to the interpretation of the teller, and it is not surprising that the slant given the Mexican-American War in the United States differs slightly from the version presented in the museum housed in Chapultepec Castle.

For the United States, the war represented the fulfillment of its Manifest Destiny. As explained on the San Jacinto Monument, the Texians’ victory at the Battle of San Jacinto laid the foundation for the next violent chapter of relations between the neighbors:

Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.

With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States paid the Mexican government $15 million, or about $15 per square mile, for the land it now claimed.

The treaty meant Mexico lost half its territory for the same amount of money paid the French for the Louisiana Purchase. The interpretation at Chapultepec records the war as a land grab by its greedy neighbor, a war that cost many their lives. At the very bottom of the signage is a quotation from President Ulysses S. Grant, expressing shame for the “wicked” war.

Grant’s words, however, were not taken out of context. Here is a longer portion from an 1879 interview given by Grant:

I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign…. I considered my supreme duty was to my flag. I had a horror of the Mexican War, and I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was not in the way our soldiers conducted it, but in the conduct of our government in declaring war…. We had no claim on Mexico. Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River, and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.

Another intrusion into Mexico’s sovereignty occurred soon after. The $15 million received from the United States did little to alleviate the debt Mexico incurred during the expensive war. President Benito Juarez defaulted on Mexico’s loans from France. A conspiracy between out-of-power Mexican conservatives and Napoleon III resulted in an 1862 invasion by France. The French were defeated in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, the reason for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

But that was one battle, not the entire war. While the United States was occupied fighting the Confederacy, France succeeded in installing Maximilian I, a Hapsburg prince, as Emperor of Mexico. Emperor Maximilian transformed the castle into his residential palace with a grand boulevard, now known as Paseo de la Reforma, leading into the heart of the city.

Not surprisingly, many in Mexico were not fond of having a foreign monarch with no command even of the Spanish language, and forces loyal to Benito Juarez executed him in 1867.

During the extended off-and-on terms of President Porfirio Diaz from 1876 to 1911, the castle served as his palatial headquarters as well. Amazingly, during the following tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution that followed, much of the opulent décor contributed by Maximilian and Diaz remained unscathed.

Chapultepec was declared a national museum in 1939.

Masterful murals depicting the revolutionary period were commissioned in the late 1950s to 1970s. Juan O’Gorman’s (1904-1982) murals commemorating Mexican independence were begun in 1960. Work by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) was interrupted when he was imprisoned followed anti-government protests in 1960, and he completed his 175-foot mural after his release in 1964.

 

 

UTSA Art Collection gives ‘Voz’ to Latino experience

Collectively, these artistic works constitute a powerful testimonio of the history, experience and transformations of Latino/a individuals and their place in the communities of these lands.

Out of their vision and craft, these artists have created works that imagine art as a practice of political and spiritual uprising, art as a testament to the abiding power of memory and heritage to help understand ourselves, of the central place of landscape and portraiture in capturing the stories of our legacy, and of the role of mythic imagination as a force that can be refined to re-imagine ourselves into the future.

Amidst all of the differentiation of visions, perhaps there is a deeper narrative visible here, of a people broadening the scope of the ideas and images of themselves as Americans rooted in a still contested landscape, in an increasingly globalized world.

Seen as a whole, the VOZ exhibition can be viewed as a powerful affirmation of the role artists and their work are playing in helping to unfold and reveal the destiny of a people, a story embodied in the three-hundred yearlong history of the city of San Antonio.

John Phillip Santos

More than 200 works drawn from the art collection of the University of Texas San Antonio are included in “VOZ,” on display at Centro de Artes at Market Square as part of San Antonio’s Tricentennial Celebration.

For three hundred years, San Antonio has been a place where different languages, customs and traditions have merged to form a unique cultural history.

Like all stories of a particular place and time, the work on these walls is informed by pride, joy and a tenacity that reverberates in the voices that celebrate the Latino experience.

Arturo Infante Almeida, exhibition curator

Six of the featured artists will join Almeida and Santos for a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Ellen Riojas Clark at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 5.

The not-to-be-missed admission-free exhibition runs through June 10.

Morning walk turns into thematic parade through San Antonio’s heritage

The sky spat a fine mist on us when we set out for a morning walk. We probably would not have headed out at all were I not obsessed by the prospect of seeing longhorns herded through downtown in the San Antonio Livestock Show & Rodeo’s Western Heritage Parade and Cattle Drive, enlarged this year as part of San Antonio’s celebration of its 300th birthday.

The tricentennial meaning of the “300” on the banner was lost on some of the spectators standing next to us. Child: “Wow. There are going to be 300 cows.” Dad: “No, it means this is the 300th year of the cattle drive.”

While this was not the 300th annual parade of longhorns, cattle have been part of San Antonio’s history since Native Americans tending livestock for San Antonio’s string of missions became America’s first cowboys. Many of the Spanish terms the charros used to describe their work and equipment became embedded in the English language, as in the word “rodeo” itself.

Longhorns are not foreign to downtown, with a strong connection to Alamo Street and its plaza:

In 1876 salesman Pete McManus with his partner John Warne (Bet-a-Million) Gates conducted a famous demonstration on Alamo Plaza in San Antonio in which a fence of Glidden’s “Winner” wire restrained a herd of longhorn cattle. Gates reportedly touted the product as “light as air, stronger than whiskey, and cheap as dirt.” Sales grew quickly thereafter, and barbed wire permanently changed land uses and land values in Texas.

“Barbed Wire,” Texas Handbook Online

Sheep, goats, hogs, cows and horses often clogged the streets as farmers and ranchers brought them in from the countryside to sell to city dwellers. City folks began to tire of the inconvenience of this practice as the 21st century dawned.

Driving wild stock through our streets should be prohibited at once. Yesterday afternoon a drove of about thirty horses went up Houston street, and came near killing a child, while general travel was greatly obstructed.

San Antonio Daily Express, March 12, 1891

Hoping this herd of longhorns will not be the last to parade past the Alamo.

Much like barbed wire transformed the days of the open range, a wall some propose to enclose San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza would bring an era to an end. For many San Antonians, the Alamo and its plaza represent more than a battle site frozen and time. Their evolution before and after 1836 is an integral part of our heritage. The plaza historically and currently lies at the heart of many of San Antonio’s annual celebrations.

Texans in other parts of the state often fail to realize how tightly this plaza is woven into our urban fabric. The revised Master Plan for the Alamo now appears to recognize that concern:

An early concept of structural glass walls was shared at a public meeting, however, the final Master Plan includes no walls. The plan does propose archaeology that would reveal the original Alamo wall footings so that visitors may see what remains of the original Alamo walls.

Although this assurance is followed by:

These and other design concepts will be fully explored in future phases of the plan.

Stay vigilant.

This year’s San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo runs February 8 through 25.